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Federal Politics
Election 2021

Suzuki, Atwood, Ondaatje, Lewis Call for Emergency Leaders Debate on Climate

Their joint letter to head of debate commission cites ‘a mass and urgent existential threat.’

Michael Harris 18 Aug

Michael Harris, a Tyee contributing editor, is a highly awarded journalist and documentary maker. Author of Party of One, the bestselling exposé of the Harper government, his investigations have sparked four commissions of inquiry.

David Johnston, head of the Leaders Debate Commission, has been asked to hold a special Climate Emergency Leadership Debate as part of the 2021 federal election.

“Canadians need a chance to assess whether those who seek national leadership understand the severity of the crisis, and what their plan is to combat it,” an Aug. 16 letter sent to Johnston said.

The letter was signed by four distinguished members of the Order of Canada Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, Stephen Lewis and David Suzuki. Calling the climate crisis “a mass and urgent existential threat,” the signatories wrote:

“As last week’s chilling report from the International Panel on Climate Change made clear once again, we’ve almost run out of time. If we fail to act quickly on the climate crisis, then over the course of the coming decades, things get horrific — a world that is unlivable and catastrophic for many, deeply uncomfortable and disruptive for all others, and quite possibly ungovernable.”

The sixth report of the UN’s IPCC called for the total overhaul of the global food system to stop climate breakdown. The scientists claimed that the food system from the farm to the grocery store is a top cause of deforestation, which accounts for 30 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions.

The IPCC pointed out that clear cutting forests and peatland for agriculture makes it harder for countries to keep their commitments under the Paris Agreement. Restoring forests worldwide is vital to reducing CO2 emissions, regulating the climate, cleaning air and water, and providing important habitat for wildlife.

In places, the letter sent to commissioner Johnston, a former Governor General, was highly personal.

“Like you, those of us signing this letter are elders. You have 14 grandchildren; most of us are grandparents. The future of our grandchildren and our children is now gravely threatened. Indeed, the future of those our age is now at risk. Even if they are well off, no fancy retirements on tropical islands or balmy climates await them, as the islands flood and the balmy climates heat up and burn or shrivel. And if the oceans die, so will all oxygen-breathing, mid-sized land mammals like us.”

Many critics of how governments have handled climate change think it is already too late. Writing in Forbes magazine, James Conca predicted that that latest IPCC report will be ignored, like the ones before it. Conca writes that unless immediate, rapid and large scale reductions of greenhouse gas emissions are undertaken, humankind won’t be able to limit global warming to 2 C, a disastrous outcome.

‘Beyond rage’: Suzuki

Canada’s greatest advocate of waking up governments to the realities of the climate change emergency, David Suzuki, had more to say outside of the scope of the letter to David Johnston.

“I am beyond rage. I am livid. We are in a climate extinction EMERGENCY…. Heat records are being set from British Columbia to Siberia, forests are burning, drought is everywhere, and people are dying…. So what the hell is it going to take to make our politicians act? Saying things — ‘net zero by 2050’ — is just words, it’s nothing, it’s not actions…. Despite promise after promise, our emissions have never dropped and we are one of the worst polluters in the world.”

A revolution between the ears could still change that. Suzuki points out that COVID has proven that society can move mountains during an emergency. No party objected to the Trudeau government’s heightened spending or asked where the money would come from because it was an emergency, not a political issue. The government found the money. And Canadians responded by changing their behaviour and lives.

“But climate change requires an even greater response,” Suzuki wrote. “The climate is changing faster than I ever imagined when I did my first program on global warming in 1989. Events this summer, and the new IPCC report, show the dangers that scientists predicted are now happening and will get worse.”

For Suzuki, the matter is personal, urgent and comes with some advice for every voter in the coming election.

“I am an old man, but I fear for my grandchildren and yours. We have to react as if it is World War III. The next Parliament holds the future in its hands. We must elect a huge contingent of people in all parties who genuinely get the emergency and are determined to work together. Find your climate champion and work like mad to get them elected. It’s a matter of survival.”

The signatories of the letter to commissioner Johnston picked up on Suzuki’s line of thought.

“If this were an election during the Second World War, no one would question the need for a special leaders’ debate on that subject. Today, the need for a designated leaders’ debate on the climate emergency is no different. It is not a luxury or a diversion: it is a necessity.”

As things now stand, two leadership debates are planned during the federal election — the French language debate on Sept. 8, and the English language debate on Sept. 9. Topics for both debates will be released three days before the events, both of which will be held in the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Quebec.  [Tyee]

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